In the last year, we’ve seen Netflix’s “Selena: The Series,” the movie “In the Heights” and Disney’s “Encanto” is coming out next month. Why this sudden wave of Latinx representation?
There have been instances of bursts I would say. I think the larger issue remains relative to the visibility of Latinidad, especially Chicanx characters, ambiente, and ideas. Selena is a very well-known figure and widely celebrated, so I think of that story as being safe ground for certain types of Latino representation in the mass culture. There’s also a celebrated podcast (called Anything for Selena) about her enduring appeal.
In terms of storytelling, lack of representation on issues related to poverty, racism, the struggles to achieve educational excellence, and issues related to substance abuse and violence affecting our communities are only scantily treated. Where are the Latinx ideas programs, philosophical and literary Chicanx cultura?
There are still some struggles like these to be addressed, but I think shows like “Selena: The Series” and Lin Manuel Miranda representing Latinos and our culture are very hopeful signs.
How authentically do these recent works of pop culture represent the Latinx culture and community?
There are very few instances in any media that I regard as authentically capturing the world as a Mexican American. The piece that remains most authentic to me of Mexican Americans is the movie “La Bamba,” but that was more than 30 years ago.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the Fall of Tenochtitlan, or what we call the Conquest of Mexico. This event had resounding echoes throughout history, including the emergence of New Spain and North Mexico and what ultimately became South Texas. This is America’s other origin story—100 years before Plymouth Rock—something that hasn’t been covered.
A lot of us are working toward that in many media such as books, films and music, but it’s something that still plays totally at the margins of mass culture.
You worked in the industry as a writer, filmmaker, producer and journalist, so you’ve seen all of this firsthand. Do you think Latino representation has improved in the media? What sort of work still needs to be done?
There’s a whole lot of work that still needs to be done. It makes a difference when someone like a reporter has a background in certain areas. It allows us to hear an authentic voice on what’s taking place. A very good example is a younger reporter at The New York Times named Edgar Sandoval. He is from the Valley and has been writing amazing pieces on the COVID epidemic in the Valley. In my many years of reading The New York Times, I’ve never seen a reporter use Tex-Mex or Valley Spanglish in a way that wasn’t objectified.
In one of Sandoval’s stories, a son, whose mother had died from COVID, was talking to the funeral director and said, “peine la bien,” or “comb her well.” He blended that mix of Spanish and English that’s familiar to all of our ears in a place like San Antonio or South Texas. These are some things people might find insignificant, but for those of us invested in the hope for a new way of making media, it makes a huge difference. For the most part, these kinds of nuanced true Chicanx voices are still excluded from the mediasphere.
You specialize in Mestizo cultural studies at UTSA. What nuanced representation of Latino multiracial identities—such as mestizo or mulatto—have you seen in mainstream arts and entertainment?
At the time of the early 20th century, there was a big movement out of Mexico by artists, writers and intellectuals to celebrate the mestizo heritage of Mexico. The person who is most associated with this is philosopher Jośe Vasconcelos. He turned the derogatory representation of the mestizo and proclaimed people of Mexico as the “raza cósmica” or the cosmic race.
The term mestizo is not commonly used in the media. My primo, Robert Santos, who was just nominated to head the Census Bureau, talks about how he writes in mestizo as a qualifier when checking boxes relating to race and identity in the Census. It’s not something that is officially in the Census yet, but I expect in the very near future we will see the Census include the term mestizo.
As a Mexican American, growing up, I felt there weren’t many people who looked like me in the Hollywood media, although there were a few, like Selena and San Antonio’s own Jesse Borrego. Were there any Latinos in TV or film you admired growing up?
We were always super-sensitive to any appearance of Latinos, especially Mexican Americans. So, anyone that had that heritage was kind of an icon. Lee Trevino, the golfer. Trini Lopez, the singer from Dallas, or Freddie Fender, born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito. All of them, for us, were inspirations that we could push through and persevere.